- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Even as Charles County, Md., faces the same slowing home sales as many other areas in the Washington region and around the country, longtime residents, developers and real estate agents insist they are optimistic about the long view.

New homes are being built, new shops and eateries are coming in, and prosperous members of the work force of the future are being cultivated right here at home.

“It used to be that you had to go outside the county for a good job,” says R. Gore Bolton, president and CEO of Bolton & Associates, a civil-engineering firm based in La Plata, the town where he was born and raised.

Not anymore. Mr. Bolton, who is also president of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, says that these days, established employers such as Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center mean that high-paying jobs are not exclusively the domain of neighboring Washington or the close-in Virginia suburbs.

Within his own company, Mr. Bolton and his staff attempt to make scholarship, internship and employment opportunities available every year to young people who might otherwise jump ship for other locales.

“We try to make sure our work force can get a lot of the training they need to advance,” he says. As his firm and others that are members of the chamber do their part, “people can live near their support structures” — their family, friends and community — “and not have to travel away to work every day.”

The Civista Medical Center in La Plata and higher educational institutions, such as the College of Southern Maryland, which was founded in Charles County, will attract new employers to the county, Mr. Bolton firmly believes.

“Those are the types of things companies look to when they are choosing an area to move into,” he says.

The buyer’s market of late makes it somewhat easier for workers who would prefer to live in the same county as their employer to purchase a home. A report issued late last month by the National Association of Realtors showed that home sales had posted their sharpest drop in 18 years in March. That month’s 6.12 million houses sold compared to February’s 6.68 million sold represented an 8.4 percent sales decrease, the largest one-month drop since January 1989.

“Two years ago, a buyer would call and say, ‘I want to go shopping with you for a week,’ and you’d think, ‘I hope I have two homes to show her that week,’ ” says Cheryl Bare, a Realtor with Century 21 Comstock Earnest Inc. “Now I think, ‘Man, which ones [out of the inventory] am I going to show her?’ ”

Closer to home, other statistics point to stagnancy within Charles County. March data from the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors shows that 80 of the homes sold countywide that month had been on the market for more than three months.

By contrast, in March 2006, only 39 of the total homes sold in Charles County had been on the market for more than a quarter.

Nevertheless, Ms. Bare still contends that relatively speaking, Charles County is “booming,” in part because “this is a transient area, with a lot of military families coming and going.”

Because of that, “you can get beautiful homes that are 3,000 square feet on three acres of land, starting at $550,000,” she says.

There’s action in existing homes as well as in new construction, Ms. Bare says. “People are turning around and selling the homes they bought five years ago, so if you don’t want to build, you don’t have to,” she says.

David Hruda, vice president at Somerset Homes, based in Bel Alton, Md., is bullish on La Plata in general and specifically on his company’s luxury condo project taking shape there.

Edelen Station is slated to be a 115-unit condo community. Almost half of the condos are already sold, although the project is currently only one-fifth occupied.

“There aren’t a lot of condo projects in Charles County,” he says. “We’re creating a product that is new to the area. Edelen Station and all of our communities are designed to be as maintenance-free as possible,” the better to embody Somerset’s goal of offering “carefree luxury living,” he says.

Mr. Hruda characterized Edelen Station as a “segue” into Somerset’s next project in the county, dubbed Stagecoach Crossing. With both of these communities in Charles County, Somerset hopes to provide its buyers with “a sense of an urban environment in a safe and rural setting.”

“It’s the feeling of living in Georgetown but knowing you are 40 miles away,” he says.

More established communities in the county include St. Charles, the land for which was purchased in 1968 and the building of which is still, by officials’ reckoning, only half completed. St. Charles spells “home” for about one-third of all residents of Charles County.

“We build about 200 single-family homes a year,” says Mark MacFarland, vice president of land development at American Community Properties Trust (ACPT), the land-development firm behind St. Charles. It used to be that under requirements set forth by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development that St. Charles was required to have a certain amount of work-force housing. Currently, all housing units — single-family homes and apartments in a series of new buildings called Sheffield Greens — are being sold or leased at market rates, Mr. MacFarland says.

Single-family detached homes in St. Charles are in the upper $400,000 to $500,000 range, Mr. MacFarland says, while rents at Sheffield Greens are estimated between $1,000 and $1,700 per month. Some 90 percent of the 252 total apartments are now occupied, he says.

Like most other developers, ACPT and Lennar Corp., the national builder to which ACPT sells land, have reported sharply decreased sales and profits in recent quarters as the market has softened. For its fourth fiscal 2006 quarter, Lennar reported a net loss of $195.6 million, as compared with fourth quarter 2005 net earnings of $581.2 million. For its part, ACPT reported net earnings of $1.59 million for its fiscal fourth quarter of 2006, as compared with fourth quarter 2005 net earnings of $5.64 million.

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